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Use “The World’s Simplest Idea” to Inspire

Simon Sinek has discovered what he claims is “the world’s simplest idea” to explain the common quality that is shared by the world’s greatest leaders and organizations.Almost four million people have viewed his TED talk, http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html , so obviously his idea is resonating with a lot of people.He calls it “The Golden Circle” and it looks like this:

What represents what we do—tangible things that we all know and can easily articulate, like products and services.How is the way we do it--what makes our product or service special.Why is the purpose—it’s what makes us get out of bed in the morning, it’s what inspires us.Why is not about making money.Money, according to Sinek, is a by-product of what you do.Why is about something deeper and closer to the heart.

Most organizations and people move from the outside in, focusing on the outer two rings—the how and the what.These are more tangible, clear and easy to describe.Great leaders and organizations do exactly the opposite, they communicate and work from the inside out—they start with why.

This golden circle, this working from the inside out, is working from the fuzzy to the tangible, from the difficult to communicate to the easiest to communicate.But it is the most effective.The Wright brothers' story, one of Sinek's examples, demonstrates why. The Wright brothers were in a race with many others to be the first to fly.A serious competitor for the honor was Samuel Pierpont Langley.Langley was well capitalized, with a $50,000 grant from the US Army.He was connected to Harvard and the Smithsonian, so he had access to the best minds, and he was well known—the New York Times was chronicling his every move.Contrast that with the Wright brothers.Their only funding came from the profits of their bicycle shop.No one working on their team had a college education and no one had ever heard of them.The key difference between the two was that Langley was working for fame and money—to be the first.The Wright brothers had a vision of how flight would change the world and they gave that vision everything they had.

Sinek says, “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”The same is true for organizations like Apple or leaders like Martin Luther King.They are successful because they can articulate what they believe, the why of their existence, and others who share that why want to be part of it.

This idea isn’t new, but it is simple and powerful.I’ve experienced myself how people are moved almost mysteriously to action, to give everything they’ve got, because someone was able to articulate something deep that resonated with them.The same is true for selling.People will buy what you sell because they believe what you believe.But recognizing and articulating the why isn’t easy.That’s why so few companies or leaders do it.

Sinek explains that the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls rational thought and language is focused on what and how.The limbic system, the seat of our emotional response and motivation, answers why.It does not have a language component.It only feels.So we get a feeling about something but find it hard to describe what it is we are feeling.I believe too, as Marshall Rosenberg described in his book Non-Violent Communication:A Language of Life, that we have not been taught to focus on what we feel or what we need—and therefore we often are blind to this important information and don’t know how to talk about it.

To me, the skills of turning inward, of paying attention to feelings, needs and wants and describing them to others are the building blocks we need to develop our capacity to identify the why—the why of our work, the why of our organization, the why of our lives.If we can learn to identify that why, then we can inspire others to connect with us, to share our vision, and give their all.

4 Responses to "Use “The World’s Simplest Idea” to Inspire"

  • Plum Cluverius
    February 22, 2012 - 9:08 pm Reply

    I’m pleased with the response to this blog post and others. I’ve heard people are having trouble posting comments and I’m looking into this now. Hope to have it fixed soon!

  • susan buniva
    February 23, 2012 - 1:15 am Reply

    As always, your remarkable wisdom shines through. I love the way you integrate these different levels in your coaching.

  • Plum
    February 27, 2012 - 7:07 pm Reply

    Thanks, Susan. I believe all three levels are important to communicate, but from experience I see how the “why” makes such a big difference. I also know from experience how difficult it is to talk about it and yet we must, because that’s where we begin to have common ground.

  • Anonymous
    March 4, 2012 - 7:42 pm Reply


    I was in Silicon Valley this week at Tim OReilly’s Strata conference for Big Data. Data Science is a “converged discipline” formed primarily at the nexus of computer science, linguistics, physics, business intelligence and applied statistics.

    After 30 or so presentations relating to new processes and technologies, one of my collegues quipped that with all this focus on statistical graphs and matrices (X,Y axes) that we might be losing focus on the “Why Axis”.

    I know it’s geeky, but geeks rule and … it supports the theme of the post.

    Muddy Water

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